The Battle of Antietam: an interview with Tom Vossler

Colonel Tom Vossler has long been the lead historian of Diamond6 TVossler_Headshot_2016Leadership. He has taken many of our groups through various Civil War battlefields, providing a historical playing field in which to discuss important leadership lessons.

In the past he has teamed up with Carol Reardon, the George Winfree Professor of American History at Pennsylvania State University, to write a history of the Battle of Gettysburg—A Field Guide to Gettysburg: Experiencing the Battlefield through Its History, Places, and People. They have a1rjerl95mlcome together once again to write A Field Guide to Antietam: Experiencing the Battlefield through Its History, Places, and People.

Diamond6 sat down with Col. Vossler to discuss Antietam, its place in Civil War history, and its leadership lessons. September 17 will be the battle’s 154th anniversary.

Why is Antietam important in the context of the Civil War?

This campaign, this battle, is part of a larger picture called the Maryland Campaign of 1862. There has been a string of Confederate victories as they cross the Potomac to begin this new campaign. What is also important to note is that while the Maryland Campaign is being fought, out west there’s a Confederate campaign for the invasion of Kentucky.

These are two simultaneous Confederate advances into two border states, Kentucky and Maryland. From a political and military strategic standpoint, we must remember that President Lincoln said he must have Kentucky or else he would lose its support.

This battle forces the Confederacy back, which is why this battle is so important. The incursion into the border states is turned back by Union forces.

What are four key moments that turn the tide in this battle?

First, this battle takes place on September 17, following the South Mountain battles, which really disrupted Lee’s plans to invade Pennsylvania. He doesn’t make it that far. Meanwhile, General McClellan, the Union commander, could’ve attacked on September 16, but delayed one full day to get his forces ready. But if you flip that coin, that affords Lee another 24 hours in which to get his forces to the battlefield.

The second moment also has to do with McClellan. During the battle, there is an opportunity for him to commit his reserves to a weak point in the Confederate line, but he hesitates and then doesn’t follow through. He fears if he commits his reserve forces, he won’t have any later. That could have split the Confederate defense. Instead it stays in place and frustrates his movements.

The third key moment is the failure of General Ambrose Burnside to make his attack across the lower bridge. There are three bridges—the upper, the middle, the lower—and his forces were at the lower bridge. He had repeated orders to get across the Antietam to attack the Confederate force on the other side of the creek. He delays, and his delay eats up several hours in the battle. This then ties into that fourth moment.

Number four is the timely arrival of an entire Confederate division commanded by General A.P. Hill. They have forced march from Harper’s Ferry, which the Confederates had captured earlier, and arrived on the battlefield just in time to turn back the advance of the Burnside’s 9th Corps.

There is no clear victor in this. From a larger overview, a strategic and operational overview, what is gained is that Lee’s army is forced out of Maryland and the Potomac River Line is restored.

After the battle, what changes do we see in the Union and Confederate leadership?

In the days and weeks after the battle, President Lincoln goes to Antietam to inquire of General McClellan why he has not followed Lee across the river into Virginia. McClellan essentially sits there with his command. He does not go after Lee, and this frustrates President Lincoln. The end result of McClellan’s delay is Lincoln relieves him of command and appoints a new commander. This leads to a continual roll over of leadership. By the time we get to Gettysburg, none of the higher level Union leadership remains.

The same thing happens in the Confederate Army. They lose a number of key leaders when they reorganize the army. They reorganize in a positive way. The replacement of the leadership leads to a slew of powerful victories.

The leadership question is what fascinates me most about Antietam—figuring out where the leaders who were at Gettysburg were at Antietam.

How then does this battle relate to today’s leaders?

What we’re talking about is the growth of leaders and the sorting out of those less capable. They’re not rising to the top anymore. They’re staying in the same position or getting washed out of the organization. The leadership over time gets better. You can watch this happen from First Bull Run, the first major land battle of the Civil War, as they progress through the war.

For today’s leaders that translates into organizational effectiveness, whether we’re talking about a school district or a corporation. At Diamond6, we’re striving to make them effective organizations through the development of their leadership. These leaders in the army, like in any organization, wherever they are they’re being developed and creating a succession of command. Every organization must think about what they’re doing to allow their leadership to mature and grow. That concept is thoroughly explored at Antietam.

Click here to purchase A Field Guide to Antietam: Experiencing the Battlefield through Its History, Places, and People.

 

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